Saturday, April 23, 2016

Standards of Legitimacy in Morality, Manners and Political Correctness

  By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
            Politics in America has never been known for its gentility and decorum, but this political season has been unusually rude, crude and even nasty.  Political nastiness goes beyond bad manners and becomes immoral when it shows intentional disrespect for others, and that has been evident in both the Republican and Democratic campaigns; but Donald Trump has set new standards of political nastiness with his personal insults and crude vernacular.

            Michael Gerson has referred to political nastiness in politics as bad manners, and said that “Manners are not the same thing as morality.  They are practical rules for living together.  Unlike morality, manners vary greatly by country and tribe, as well as across time.”  But morality, like manners, are practical rules for living together that “…vary greatly by country and tribe, as well as across time.”  Impugning another’s character and integrity is more than bad manners anywhere.  While it may not be unlawful, it is certainly immoral.

            Law, morality and manners are all standards of legitimacy that define what is right and wrong, and they vary among different cultures and religions.  It is important to distinguish the obligatory standards of law from the voluntary standards of morality and manners.  Libertarian democracy and human rights cannot exist when religious prohibitions like apostasy and blasphemy are made law and enforced by the state since they preclude the fundamental freedoms of religion and speech.  That feature of Shari’a has distorted human rights in Islamic nations. 

            The distinction between morality and manners is not as important as the distinction between law and morality, but morality is more important as a standard of legitimacy than good manners or etiquette.  Moral standards are at the foundation of what we define to be legitimate, while manners are limited to decorum and politeness.  Gerson has cited Miss Manners:
“America has — in theory — the best code of manners the world has ever seen.  That’s because it is based on respect for the individual, regardless of his or her origin. Good manners in America are about helping strangers. They’re also about judging people on their qualities rather than on their backgrounds. These are principles that were deliberately worked out by our Founding Fathers to assure the dignity of the individual and to keep society nonhierarchical.” 

            Miss Manners has blurred the distinction between manners and morality.  The standards of etiquette and decorum are more superficial than those of morality, which are based on the greatest commandment to love God and one’s neighbor as oneself.  It is morality, not manners, that motivates us to help strangers and judge people on their qualities rather than on their backgrounds.  That moral imperative of faith was a guiding principle of “our Founding Fathers to assure the dignity of the individual and keep society nonhierarchical,” and it remains at the foundation of libertarian democracy and human rights.

            Political correctness is in a category by itself.  It refers to standards of legitimacy that are considered important to some but offensive to others.  It began with an emphasis on accepting diversity in cultural values on race, sex and sexual preference in colleges and universities, and has evolved into the prohibition of any activity deemed objectionable by self-proclaimed public censors.  There is widespread public opposition to such political correctness as a limitation on the freedom of speech, and that has provoked a great deal of political nastiness.

            Standards of political correctness, like those of manners and morality, vary from place to place.  In Great Britain students representing Black Lives Matter at Oxford University demanded that a statue of Cecil Rhodes be removed from their campus; but the Chancellor of Oxford, Chris Patton (Lord of Barnes), not only refused their demand but in a letter addressed to those “Scrotty Students” he excoriated them for trying to rewrite history.

            Chancellor Patten’s sentiments and candor would be out of place in U.S. academic circles, but they resonate with many outside academia.  At a speech in Philadelphia on April 7, President Bill Clinton, himself a Rhodes scholar, berated a Black Lives Matter heckler for criticizing his 1994 crime bill as being racially discriminatory, as well as Hillary Clinton’s 1996 remark that the new law would rid the streets of thugs as “super predators.”    

            There is deep-seated public resentment to standards of political correctness that demand the redaction of history to suit the preferences of those aggrieved by it, and that stifle open and candid discussion of controversial issues that might upset the delicate sensitivities of today’s students—and that public resentment is not limited to Trump and Cruz supporters.

            Conflicts over issues of legitimacy in law, morality, manners and what is considered to be politically correct reflect a deeply divided America that is in need of political reconciliation.  The spirit of inquiry and lively debate should not be discouraged by standards of political correctness, but public debate should meet the criteria of morality and good manners.  Contemporary politics has provided examples of how not to do this.  Our religious and political leaders can do better.  They should exemplify how we can carry on a civil discussion of controversial issues.

Notes and References to Related Blogs:

On related blogs, see Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; The Greatest Commandment, January 11,2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Moral Restraints on the Freedom of Speech, May 17, 2015; Jesus Meets Muhammad Today, June 14, 2015; Reconciliation in Race and Religion: Compatibility, not Conformity, July 12, 2015; Religion, Heritage and the Confederate Flag, July 19, 2015; What Is Truth?, August 30, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; Resettling Refugees: Multiculturalism or Assimilation? December 26, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016; Religion, Race and the Deterioration of Democracy in America, March 12, 2016; Religion, Democracy, Diversity and Demagoguery, March 26, 2016; and The Freedom of Religion and Providing for the Common Good, April 2, 2016.

Chancellor Patten’s response to the demand of black students at Oxford University is at

For President Clinton’s response to a Black Lives Matter demonstrator in Philadelphia, see

Catherine Rampell has described the pernicious effect of political correctness on higher education as a form of liberal intolerance at

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